Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
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Chéri was inspired by family folklore about her great-great-aunts, Mary and Martha Clarke, very light-skinned African-American women in late 19th-century Texas who passed for white in that segregated time and place. As no two stories she heard were the same, she said, she decided to tell her own version, complete with both love and (minimal) violence.
Director Robert O'Hara, recently noted for his work on the button-pushing Slave Play on Broadway, smoothly navigates a world where people buy into stereotypes because they have never had to look beneath the surface. This works both ways: Mary (Solea Pfeiffer) and Martha (Emmy Raver-Lampman) are strangers to the society they would like to enter and must learn to fit in as they go.
On Jason Sherwood's set, mostly a worn and crumpled-looking backdrop enhanced with projections by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson and a few individual pieces of scenery, Chéri and Baum weave a story of how fraternal twins Mary and Martha work alongside their righteous mother Tallulah (Marva Hicks) as sharecroppers on a Texas farm. Slavery may have ended with the Civil War, the workers note, but the economics of sharecropping kept poor African Americans in chains.
Supported by the gorgeous a cappella harmonies of a seven-member chorus billed as "Kinfolk," Mary and Martha leave home (Byron Easley's "train" choreography is ingenious and stunningly effective) and, for the first time, attempt to act as equals to the white people around them. Soon they discover their talents for both con artistry and outright armed robbery, and the plot progresses from there.
Where to begin among the cast members? Hicks is the anchor of the production with her authoritative singing voice and mighty presence; Pfeiffer and Raver-Lampman are well matched as their bonds of sisterhood come under stress; Dan Tracy is suave as a small-town boss who thinks he's running things; Donald Webber Jr. gives an aching performance as a servant who just wants the dignity that society refuses to give him; and Crystal Mosser, Yvette Monique Clark, and Awa Sal Secka sparkle in small roles that echo the black-or-white theme.
Dede Ayite has created costumes that both fit the era and, in the case of the Kinfolk, subtly incorporate more contemporary looks. Alex Jainchill's vivid lighting design and Ryan Hickey's sound design enhance the experience, underscored by 10 musicians led by keyboardist Darryl G. Ivey.
Gun & Powder runs through February 23, 2020, at Signature Theatre's MAX Theater, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA. For tickets and information, please call 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.
Book and lyrics by Angelica Chéri
Mary Clarke: Solea Pfeiffer